As the New England Patriot fans continue to celebrate, dynasty owners must continue to evaluate. With each and every carry that Sony Michel took during the season, his dynasty draft stock continued to rise. However, when it comes to running backs for Bill Belichick, we must always be cautious.
What can we expect from Michel, James White and the rest of the New England squad? Judging by a recent Twitter poll, it is clear that Michel is the perceived lead dog in that backfield.
Doing a bit of research for a paper.
— Tyler Ghee (@TylerGheeNFL) February 22, 2019
However, the biggest question is: by how much?
This series takes a look at individual players and uses data and evidence to support a claim or hypothesis. I will be impartial and present one of two conclusions:
CONFIRMED (Data supports the claim or hypothesis.)
BUSTED (Data does not support the claim or hypothesis.)
The papers claim: “Sony Michel will be the most fantasy productive running back for the Patriots in 2019.”
In order to discover if this “Myth” is Confirmed or Busted, we must look at what data we have about the current Patriots backfield.
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Players in the System
When analyzing this rising stud of a running back, it is not enough just to look at his draft capital and his Combine stats, but rather we need to look at how he compares to the other running backs in the same system. Bill Belichick is known for not caring about names or draft capital, but production.
Just like many of the players in this series, Michel dealt with some sort of injury in 2018. Making comparison a bit difficult. In order to combat this, I have chosen to use the Opportunity Ratio. This statistic is calculated by taking the total fantasy points the player receives divided by the number of targets and/or carries they had. This allows for injury and missed games to become a non-factor. Simply put, what did this player do with the opportunity given to them? Below is the Opportunity Ratio (in PPR formats) for the three main Patriots running backs in 2018 (Rex Burkhead being the third).
(Graph from ffstatistics.com.)
Analysis of the graph above leaves an interesting development. James White is well above his teammates with fantasy production per opportunity at 1.27 (PPR). Sony Michel coming in at 0.64 (PPR). Nearly half the production of his veteran teammate. This data does not bode well in making the claim that Sony is the most productive back in the system. However, we can not discredit his postseason performance. This young rookie was all but on fire. In his 3 postseason games, he carried the ball 71 times and received 3 targets for a total of 71.5 fantasy points.
71.5 (ppr points) 74 (opportunity) = .97 Opportunity Ratio.
Still considerably less than the 1.27 that was produced during the regular season by White. Even with his high amount of scoring (Six touchdowns in three games.)
Then let us consider fantasy overall performance. Rather than look at each opportunity, we can analyze each game. Below is a chart depicting fantasy finishes (PPR) for both half backs in 2018. In order to not skew the information due to injury, percentages were used instead.
(Graph from ffstatistics.com.)
Scanning the data we can see that he is showing some promise as a young rookie, but still fails to eclipse the production that James White was having during the regular season. This could be due to him learning the new system or simply Bill Belichick needing time before handing too much of a role to a rookie. Comparing the two separately won’t do us much good.
The reality of the situation is that Bill Belichick will not be using just a solo running back. His backfield has always been one that causes many a fantasy player to stress out over. A split backfield will happen. Luckily we have data to analyze when these two players split the ball in 2018. First, let us look at his production when splitting the ball with James White.
(Chart from ffstatistics.com.)
Lots of information to take in. Foremost we must know how to read the information presented in order to analyze it.
- Second row: Michel has played 13 games in which he split carries (every game).
- Third row: His average points per game in the split (10.58 PPR) followed by his average points per game without splitting (0.00 PPR as he has always had to split).
- Fourth row: How many points would be projected to get within the split if he played all 17 games (173.66 PPR) and without splitting (0.00 PPR).
- Fifth row: His fantasy finish for 2018 if he scores the projected points.
In good measure, let’s also compare these stats to that of White when he splits with this first-round talent.
(Chart from ffstatistics.com.)
Comparing the two, it is clear to see who is more productive in splits or not. Regardless of splitting or not, White still finishes as a top-12 RB for fantasy whereas the perceived new talent in town finishes, at best, as the RB17. This is all building evidence that in fantasy, the veteran was the most productive running back on his team. Some of this could be due to Michel learning this very intense Patriots offense.
The final stat I want to draw attention to is red zone production. Let’s face it: the Patriots are a good team that will score a lot – this means more touchdowns and more opportunity for running backs to be fantasy productive. However, what did the red zone really look like for the Patriots? In the postseason, it was clear that the rookie was the goal-line back but during the main season was it his competition? If so, can we expect those touchdowns to be redistributed in 2019? Below are the top five fantasy-producing running backs in the red zone for 2018 (PPR).
(Chart from fantasydata.com.)
Taking a closer look, we can see that James White was fifth among them. Even more interesting is that he had by far the lowest amount of attempts and yards within the red zone. However, he had the most receiving touchdowns out of all the aforementioned players. The biggest takeaway from this is that he never was much of a goal-line back to begin with. Although some touchdowns may get shifted, not all can be scalped away due to his pass-catching role in this offense and in the red zone.
Finally, we can not discredit Michel’s postseason performance. However, I think it should be mentioned that Bill Belichick is known for using his backup running back to change the pace during the playoffs.
This is a hot take. I had no intentions of making this article edgy and unique, but rather was generally curious as to what running back will be the most productive moving forward. In these articles, I try to generally pick subjects that I too am curious about and only present the information that I find.
Regardless if you agree or disagree, there has been a substantial amount of evidence presented that all points to this myth being BUSTED. Could I see where Michel continues to rise and overtake the backfield? Absolutely. What has happened in the past is not deemed to repeat itself. Looking at current data, I would claim that it is more of a projection moving forward.
Does this mean that he will not be relevant? Absolutely not! Just more evidence points to the fact that these running backs will both be utilized. This could be a very similar system to that of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. While both have roles, both also have some fantasy impact.
The biggest takeaway from this research is to be aware of James White’s future role in this offense. The veteran’s contract as of now is for another two years, without much hit against the cap. I would say that the Patriots will be using both running backs for the next two seasons. At current ADP, Michel is RB15 off most dynasty boards, while White is RB31.
When drafting and trading in the near future, look to obtain White and also be aware of the expectations with a young player still gaining Bill Belichick’s trust. I personally think this is a backfield that could dominate and both players could be huge assets to any dynasty team.
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